While food may be its finest export to the world, Italy’s annual football extravaganza is not far behind. Despite dwindling attendances, the football in offer in Serie A still remains of the highest quality – just ask Manchester United, who prised away Paul Pogba for €105 million. Juventus pipped Napoli to the title last year and rubbed salt into Neapolitan wounds by stealing their most cherished son, Gonzalo Higuain for €90 million.
While the title may be a forgone conclusion, what remains a guarantee from this football crazy nation, is that the drama that surrounds Serie A will still continue to provide much fodder for the watching populace.
Grab your popcorn (or pizza), ladies and gents, we’re diving into Serie A 2016/17 – FORZA!
The Relegation Battle
Crotone: (2015/16: 2nd Serie B, Automatic Promotion | Predicted 2016/17 Finish: 20th)
That Crotone are even in Serie A is nothing short of a miracle. The club have fought bankruptcy and mediocrity throughout its history, but thrived on manager Ivan Juric's genius and the goals of on-loan attackers Ante Budimir and Federico Ricci to qualify for the top flight for the first time in their history. The trio have all left the club and new manager Davide Nicola faces an uphill battle to finish anything other than dead last; even the city where legendary mathematician Pythagoras lived surely cannot upset the odds.
Delfino Pescara: (2015/16: 4th Serie B, Playoff Promotion | Predicted 2016/17 Finish: 19th)
The club with the most adorable crest in football will take part in only their seventh Serie A season, but there ought to be plenty of drama that should ensure that viewers ought to keep an eye out for the club’s results. Manager Massimo Oddo's crazy touchline antics include stripping to his underwear, but the Dolphins suffered a similar fate upfront, when Serie B top scorer Gianluca Lapadula left for AC Milan, which will probably result in a long and tough season ending in a predictable relegation.
Palermo: (2015/16: 16th place | Predicted 2016/17 Finish: 18th)
Maurizio Zamparini's reign of terror in the Sicilian club ought to finally reap its just harvests this season. The craziness of appointing EIGHT different managers last year somehow ended on a last day escape from relegation thanks to Alberto Gilardino and Franco Vazquez, two players who have left the club. It was followed by the loss of stalwarts Stefano Sorrentino and Enzo Maresca in the summer and manager Davide Ballardini's faces a tough task to save his job. However, in terms of drama, Palermo are the club to watch in Serie A.
Cagliari: (2015/16: 1st Serie A, Automatic Promotion | Predicted 2016/17 Finish: 17th)
The Sardinian club were imperious in Serie B last season and ought to provide great competition for their rivals on Italy's main peninsula. A summer of strengthening has meant an experienced attack with the two Marcos - Sau and Borriello, with Euro 2016 champion Bruno Alves marshalling the defence, not to mention that Diego Farias should continue his excellent form from last season. Massimo Rastelli's steady hand at the helm ought to ensure that the Rossublu prolong their stay in Serie A for another season.
Udinese: (2015/16: 17th place | Predicted 2016/17 Finish: 16th)
The Stadio Friuli has witnessed the magic of Antonio ‘Toto’ di Natale for 12 years, but bid him an emotional goodbye last year. The Pozzo family’s focus on Watford has meant that Udine have been neglected in the transfer market, and they face a tough task in staying up, but ought to pull through, just, under new manager Giuseppe Iachini.
Bologna: (2015/16: 14th place | Predicted 2016/17 Finish: 15th)
Former Italy boss Roberto Donadoni saved Bologna’s season last time around, and with the impressive Euro 2016 Hungarian Adam Nagy signed, the Rossoblu should not have much of a problem staying up on the back of a solid defence. However, striker Matias Destro is far too inconsistent to trust, which might result in a lower finish in the table this time around.
Genoa: (2015/16: 11th place | Predicted 2016/17 Finish: 14th)
Il Grifone have a habit of doing well despite their stars being poached every year, but this might be the season where new manager Ivan Juric struggles to deal with the exodus. Diego Capel, Christian Ansaldi, Sebastien De Maio, Suso and Alessandro Cerci have all left, but hope arrives in the form of Lucas Ocampos who could dovetail with striker Leonardo Pavoletti, to a mid-table finish for Genoa.
Empoli: (2015/16: 10th place | Predicted 2016/17 Finish: 13th)
The club with the smallest stadium in Serie A ironically play the most entertaining football, but a third consecutive change at the helm in as many seasons might mean that inexperienced new boss Giovanni Martusciello could struggle. However, signing Manuel Pasqual and Alberto Gilardino offers heaps of experience that could stabilise things on the pitch for Ricardo Saponara to thrive creatively, thus ensuring that Empoli don’t do far worse than their surprising 10th place finish last season.
Sampdoria: (2015/16: 15th place | Predicted 2016/17 Finish: 12th)
The Blucerchiati endured a torrid campaign last time around, but new manager Marco Giampaolo is excellent at operating under constraints. A porous defence was the problem for Sampdoria last time around but on loan Leandro Castan should afford their best player, Emiliano Viviano some protection in goal. With Fabio Qualiarella and Luis Muriel likely to click, the Genovese club might do better this time around.
Atalanta: (2015/16: 13th place | Predicted 2016/17 Finish: 11th)
The Bergamo club are on the way up from their 17th placed finish two seasons ago, thanks to an academy that continues to roll out fresh Italian prospects, such as striker Alberto Paloschi, back after a loan spell with Swansea. Experienced new boss Gian Piero Gasperini should harness the talents of winger Papu Gomez and on loan defender Ervin Zukanovic to build towards an excellent campaign.
Lazio: (2015/16: 8th place | Predicted 2016/17 Finish: 10th)
Marcelo Bielsa joined and quit the club as manager in the space of 48 hours; only 11 season tickets were sold in the first 24 hours; star man Antonio Candreva has left the club; hordes of fans turned up to protest against owner Claudio Lolito – things don’t look rosy for Lazio as Simone Inzaghi returns to take charge. However, the squad possesses some of the most exciting talents in Europe, not to mention the signing of Ciro Immobile that should pay off over the season.
Chievo: (2015/16: 9th place | Predicted 2016/17 Finish: 9th)
The Flying Donkeys are the antithesis of the drama surrounding Italian football, and their hard-working nature should see them establish themselves in the top half of the table yet again. Manager Rolando Maran has made some astute moves in the transfer market, although he might look to Valter Birsa to solve his goal-scoring headache, if an audacious move for Mario Balotelli falls through.
Torino: 2015/16: 12th place | Predicted 2016/17 Finish: 8th)
While their Turin rivals have strengthened, Torino have endured a mixed summer, losing coach Giampiero Ventura to the national team, while captain Kamil Glik and Bruno Peres have departed, leaving some massive holes in their defence. However, new boss Sinisa Mihalovic and the likes of Adem Ljajic, Iago Falque, Panagiotis Tachtsidis and Sasa Lukic will provide plenty of ammunition for Andrea Belotti to rack up the goals and push the historic club up the Serie A table.
Sassuolo: (2015/16: 6th place | Predicted 2016/17 Finish: 7th)
For a club that 4 years ago had never even tasted the exalted environs of Serie A, Sassuolo are a miracle in football club form. To top it off, the Neroverdi have all but achieved Europa League group stage qualification – but it may stretch their thin squad. Despite losing Sime Vrsaljko and Nico Sansone, coach Eusebio di Francesco has retained star forward Domenico Berardi, which should ensure that Sassuolo challenge for the European spots yet again.
AC Milan: (2015/16: 7th place | Predicted 2016/17 Finish: 6th)
Silvio Berlusconi’s 30-year reign of the Rossoneri is over, as the club was sold to Chinese conglomerates, but the drawn-out deal has meant that Milan have barely made any moves in the transfer market, with Lapadula and Jose Sosa incoming, while Suso and Niang have returned from loan spells. Vincenzo Montella comes with suspicion of his style of management and football, but retaining Carlos Bacca could prove pivotal as the Milanese struggle to attract any sort of quality in midfield. 17-year-old Gianluigi Donnarumma will have to be at his best if Milan are to have a modicum of success.
Fiorentina: (2015/16: 5th place | Predicted 2016/17 Finish: 5th)
In a season where both Milan clubs flounder under new owners and Napoli and Roma find themselves weakened by Juventus, the opportunity was ripe for Fiorentina to pounce and earn a Champions League spot, but their transfer activity has been abysmal. Mario Gomez has left the club with only a couple of backups signed. Paolo Sousa should keep things oiled at the helm, ensuring that Nicola Kalinic and Federico Bernardeschi can improve on their potential to guide la Viola to another European finish.
Inter: (2015/16: 4th place | Predicted 2016/17 Finish: 4th)
Letting go of your manager two weeks before the season starts is not exactly ideal but Inter’s owners Suning might have made a wise long term choice by replacing Roberto Mancini with Frank de Boer. The Dutchman is great at bringing through young players, although holding on to Mauro Icardi to be supplied by Antonio Candreva and Ever Banega is what will get Inter fans purring. Inter have been shrewd, if not spectacular, in the transfer market, so this might see them miss out on the final Champions League qualification spot.
The Title Race
Napoli: (2015/16: 2nd place | Predicted 2016/17 Finish: 3rd)
There is much anger and resentment directed at Napoli owner Aurelio de Laurentiis by Partonopei fans regarding the sale of Gonzalo Higuain, but they would do well to remember that 10 seasons ago, the Neapolitan club were in Serie B. Maurizio Sarri's first season at the helm proved magical, given a sense of perspective, as they led the table for long periods.
This season is about stability, and with the astute purchases of Emanuele Giaccherini, Piotr Zielinski and Arkadiusz Milik, added to the fact that all of Napoli’s stars like Marek Hamsik, Lorenzo Insigne et al have stayed – Napoli could be looking at another promising season, if not a title challenge.
Roma: (2015/16: 3rd place | Predicted 2016/17 Finish: 2nd)
Despite the departure of Miralem Pjanic to Juventus, the air is positively vibrant in the capital city of Rome. Francesco Totti has a new contract, Luciano Spalletti has rejuvenated a squad that looked bereft of ideas and Roma have made a raft of promising signings, while making permanent the loan moves of Mohamed Salah, Antonio Rudiger, Stephan El Shaarawy and Edin Dzeko.
In defence, Juan Jesus and Thomas Vermaelen have come in, but the injury to Mario Rui has meant that the Giallorossi are without a proper left-back. However, with Radja Nainggolan controlling things in midfield to supple Salah, El Shaarawy and Dzeko, Roma ought to make a good fist of a title challenge.
Juventus: (2015/16: 1st place | Predicted 2016/17 Finish: 1st)
Gonzalo Higuain, Miralem Pjanic, Dani Alves, Mehdi Benatia and Marko Pjaca are five reasons why Juventus will win the Scudetto for the sixth consecutive time, despite the departure of Paul Pogba. Massimiliano Allegri will have to rejig the midfield tactics to accommodate Pjanic, Sami Khedira and Claudio Marchisio, but that ought to be no trouble.
The defensive block of Gianluigi Buffon and Barzagli, Bonucci and Chiellini should continue their miserly ways, while a combination of Paulo Dybala and Gonzalo Higuain looks positively mouth-watering up front. Juventus should romp to the Serie A title, and who knows, maybe the UEFA Champions League might also make a return to Italy.
What a season it promises to be.Published 20 Aug 2016, 16:22 IST